Operations: Mobile BI

LOC Consulting’s Richard Savery discusses how mobile technologies and a combination of data from internal and external sources can free current BI initiatives from conventional constraints.

Business intelligence (BI) has been heralded as a powerful tool for aiding the decision-making process since the 1990s. Effectively implemented, it can drive efficiency and productivity throughout the business and ensure a more connected, proactive and responsive workforce.

For the benefits of BI to be optimally realised, it needs to be accessible and timely. For too long, BI tools have remained static, being tied to the desktop PC and fed by data drawn from various ‘siloed’ enterprise systems (e.g. CRM, marketing, sales and the ERP system). The information can also be inaccurate, if large sets of data are being entered and collated manually, and out of date by the time it reaches the intended recipients. Often executives are expected to wade through vast amounts of ‘relevant information’ and hopefully pick out what they think is pertinent to their strategy.

The wave of IT consumerisation now sweeping the corporate landscape is changing this view, with the latest mobile BI applications (apps) able to transform static tools such as dashboards and spreadsheets into actionable reports delivered to the right user, at the right time whenever and wherever the need is. Busy executives equipped with 3G-enabled smart phones and tablet PCs can have instant access to relevant information needed to gain genuine insight, make informed decisions and achieve competitive advantage.

Transforming BI

Enterprises both large and small are embracing smart phones and tablet PCs as business tools, making it possible for employees to view and interact with important company data in a more revolutionary way. Analysts at Gartner believe that 33 per cent of BI functionality will be consumed via handheld devices by 2013, while a recent survey by Dresner Advisory Services (DAS) confirmed that the mainstreaming of mobile BI is well underway.

Published in mid-2010, the DAS survey found that nearly a third of respondents intended to augment (or abandon) current BI vendors in support of mobile BI over the course of the next two years, with RIM’s BlackBerry remaining the top priority, followed by Apple’s iPhone and iPad, and then Windows Mobile and Google Android. Fast and pervasive access, flexibility and better decisions were cited as the major drivers, while security, form factor and data volumes presented the biggest barriers.

According to DAS, executives were the top priority for receiving mobile BI, followed by middle managers, board directors, line management and then individual contributors. The top three mobile BI requirements were ‘viewing’, ‘alerting’ and ‘KPI monitoring’, followed by ‘data selection filtering’ and ‘drill down navigation’. ‘Dashboard assembly from components’, ‘guided analysis’ and ‘drag and drop navigation’ were less sought after, said DAS. Adoption trends also varied according to the size and viability of the organisation. The smallest of organisations were found to be the most agile and able to absorb new initiatives with relative ease, while larger organisations had larger budgets and more resources to enable change. Thus medium-sized organisations (101 to 5,000 employees) were the least likely to have the agility, budget or resources to drive change and were potentially most at risk.

A mobile presentation layer

Mobile BI describes the provision of core key performance indicators (KPIs) to smart devices. Rather than being a replacement for desktop reporting, it enables the delivery of existing reporting data held in back-office IT systems to be delivered to mobile devices. It uses secure software allowing fast, efficient extraction and querying of reporting data, condensed to allow for transmission over the mobile network and optimised to render onto smart devices.

The larger the volume of data, the more expensive to send over the mobile network and the more difficult to scroll through on smaller screens; therefore information delivery has to be highly targeted. This is driving a big change in the way executives approach BI delivery, with many starting to critically review the metrics needed to manage their business and ensure that only the right type of information is delivered to the right user at the right time.

As such, the mobile BI applications available in the market today have been designed to add a ‘visualisation front end’—or ‘presentation layer’—to an existing system. They can be integrated with some of the most popular BI suites on the market, including SAP Business Objects, Oracle Hyperion/Essbase solutions, IBM Cognos and Microsoft Services BI Reporting and Analysis. They also enable users to read information from sources that are not ‘pure BI’, such as Microsoft Office Excel, Google Docs, Crystal Reports, Salesforce CRM and Microsoft Reporting Services.

The more sophisticated mobile BI solutions available also allow critical business reports and data visualisations to be created on a secure platform behind the user organisation’s firewall. To ensure security, information is encrypted before being transmitted. Meanwhile, features such as remote wipe, file delete and device block, as well as the use of an offline personal identification number (PIN) ensure data is kept safe should the end device be lost or stolen.

While there are no ‘hard and fast rules’ to delivering mobile BI, the key is to avoid trying to replicate the desktop environment (the ‘shrink to fit’ method) and also to recognise that browser-based solutions tend to be more convenient for developers than they are for users. Businesses should be looking for ‘native apps’—i.e. software that has been developed specifically for use on a particular platform or device—that can instantly respond to user requests for information and take advantage of the unique features and functionality of that platform or device.

Intelligence at your fingertips

Despite the fact that firms are still struggling to identify an objective business case for mobile BI, many recognise the need to target the right information to the right user at the right time. Certainly, few people in management sit at their desk to make decisions, and tablet PCs are already a preferred presentation tool for many executives needing to access data as discussions are taking place in conference rooms. Not only does mobile BI provide instant access to information and a new level of performance visibility throughout the organisation, it also makes individuals more accountable. If staff know that their sales figures can be accessed by the financial director at any time, they will be more diligent in keeping this information up to date.

Mobile BI is also agile. Data sources can quickly be altered to meet changing needs at a departmental or role-specific level and graphical formats re-configured to enable any executive or worker to create and share all types of information and empower users with decision-making on the go. With an increasing number of employees bringing their own laptops, smart phones and tablet PCs into work, more and more firms are looking to mobile BI to realise a differentiated advantage. It can deliver critical intelligence to the right user at the right time while adhering to the proper disciplines and controls demanded by the IT function. It can also be presented dynamically in rich graphical layouts and within the context of the wider market to tell the real story behind the numbers.

Richard Savery is a managing consultantat LOC Consulting, a consultancy that delivers complex business change and IT initiatives on behalf of clients across Europe. For more information, go to: www.locconsulting.co.uk